Andy Blunden August 2005

Judith Butler’s Abstract General Subject


Judith Butler, Contingent Foundations, in Feminist Contentions, Routledge 1995.


Since Kant, “subject” has meant the knowing, moral agent, mostly nowadays, the individual person who is responsible for their own actions, but also, since Hegel, the coordination of individual activity around a cultural construct through which people become knowing, moral agents – a self-conscious system of activity.

Not so for poststructuralism, and not so for Judith Butler, who shares the poststructuralist concept of subjectivity though with her own conception of how subjects are constituted.

What Judith Butler calls a “subject” is what is elsewhere called a “subject position,” i.e., a location within a network of social relations, into which a person inserts themself or is inserted by social forces, according to pre-existing relations or inessential personal attributes, and which forms a “standpoint” for their ethical disposition, activity and knowledge-formation. Some subject-positions have agency, while others constitute a person as an “outsider” without voice.

The concepts of “narrative” and “discourse” have been used to conceptualise “subject position,” but the notion of “subject position” is not limited to these conceptions of social relationships. Insofar as institutions (or classes or status orders) are relatively stable systems of shared and overlapping meaning, then they provide openings for people to play “roles,” not just in a specific drama, but in a genre, so to speak, of stories.

All this is clear enough, but there are essential aspects of social practice which are subject to constraints to which narratives and discourses are not subject, so it is always necessary to at least supplement notions of “discourse” with other forms of understanding. Notably, practice is subject to constraints ultimately derived from the nature of the world outside of human activity, and by the existence of sovreign human beings with an unlimited capacity to transgress; narratives and discourses are not subject to such constraints, being limited only by the imagination.

Judith Butler’s particular approach to subject-formation is her focus on exclusion:

‘the subject is constituted through an exclusion and differentiation, perhaps a repression, that is subsequently concealed, ... the autonomous subject can maintain the illusion of its autonomy insofar as it covers over the break out of which it is constituted.’ [p. 45-46]

But at the same time, Butler retains the meaning of “subject” as the authorised, speaking “I,” – it is that aspect of the definition of subject which she is seeking to deconstruct. So the process of subject formation involves the silencing of a certain view in order to privilege another; it is not a symmetrical process – that which is “erased” is not also a subject. But more precisely:

‘subjects are constituted through exclusion, that is, through the creation of a domain of deauthorised subjects, presubjects, figures of abjection, populations erased from view.’

The paradigmatic instance for Butler’s approach is this:

‘In the 1980s, the feminist “we” rightly came under attack by women of color who claimed that the “we” was invariably white, and that that “we” was meant to solidify the movement was the very source of a painful factionalisation.’

The creation of subjects in the modern United States entailed the silencing and exclusion of women and people of colour at some time in the past, from the dominant public culture. The difficulty of explaining how it then comes about that precisely these groups which have been silenced found a voice is dealt with by Butler as follows:

‘[a] subject is neither a ground nor a product, but the permanent possibility of a certain resignifying process, one which gets detoured and stalled through other mechanisms of power, but which is power’s own possibility of being reworked.’

and subjects, those who have already been authorised (professional women, black trade unionists or veterans), “rework” prior acts of exclusion, “resignifying” denigrated aspects of their identity:

‘there is no opposition to power which is not itself part of the workings of power, that agency is implicated in what it opposes, ... “emancipation” will never be the transcendence of power as such.’ [p. 137]

I would put it. in Hegel’s terminology, that the problem with Butler’s view lies in the difference between subjectivity as “concrete universal” and inclusion/exclusion as “abstract generality.”

‘if feminism presupposes that “women” designates an undesignatable field of differences, one that cannot be totalised or summarised by a descriptive identity category, then the very term becomes a site of permanent openness and resignifiability. I would argue that the rifts among women over the content of the term ought to be safeguarded and prized, indeed, that this constant rifting ought to be affirmed as the ungrounded ground of feminist theory. To deconstruct the subject of feminism is not, then, to censure its usage, but, on the contrary, to release the term into a future of multiple significations, to emancipate it from the maternal or racialist ontologies to which it has been restricted, and to give it play as a site where unanticipated meanings might come to bear.

‘Paradoxically, it may be that only through releasing the category of women from a fixed referent that something like “agency” becomes possible.’ [my italics]

Hegel knew long ago that a collection of elements gathered together, externally, according to some attribute they have in common, cannot as such constitute a concept or subject. “Something in common” can only be a “thing-in-itself,” not yet a concept.

‘When one understands by the universal, that which is common to several individuals, one is starting from the indifferent subsistence of these individuals and confounding the immediacy of being with the determination of the Notion. The lowest possible conception of the universal in its connection with the individual is this external relation of it as merely a common element.’ [Science of Logic 1345]

The process of exclusion belongs, for Hegel, to those very first determinations of Being (thing-in-itself), not to self-consciousness (thing-for-itself).

This is the same argument as that between Rousseau and Hegel.

‘The distinction referred to above between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal, is strikingly expressed by Rousseau in his famous Contrat social, when he says that the laws of a state must spring from the universal will (volonte generale), but need not on that account be the will of all (volonte de tous). Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the state, if he had always kept this distinction in sight. The general will is the concept [Begriff] of the will: and the laws are the special clauses of this will and based upon the notion of it.’ [Shorter Logic, 163]

A community is not formed by people having “something in common.” On the contrary, community is formed by division of labour. Fundamentally, then, the process of differentiation, is not a process of exclusion and inclusion, but an unfolding into mutually supporting subjects, differentiating itself into self-conscious systems of activity, which nevertheless, opens the door to the subordination of one subject by the other, but is not founded on such an abjection.

From the abstract general point of view, the realisation of subjectivity pre-supposes the atomisation, or “rifting,” of subjectivity, of a withdrawal of solidarity. But abstract generality is no basis for the formation of subjectivity or solidarity, and what results is the process which Judith Butler finds mysterious: “the death of the subject.”

‘There is, of course, talk about the death of the subject, but which subject is that? And what is the status of the utterance that announces its passing? What speaks now that the subject is dead? That there is a speaking seems clear, for how else could the utterance be heard? So clearly, the death of that subject is not the end of agency, of speech, or of political debate. There is the refrain that, just now, when women are beginning to assume the place of subjects, postmodern positions come along to announce that the subject is dead ...’

There is feminism, there are many feminisms, in fact, and this is an achievement, but generally speaking, the only agency which remains is that of capital, the only foundation which has not been injured by the assault of abstract generality. “The death of the subject” means that the overwhelming majority of people have no effective voice in their own lives.

Of course there are many voices, just as there are at a football match, but these voices merely constitute a din.

Returning to the paradigmatic instance: black women were never silent. In fact the US Civil Rights Movement, including the participation of some very eloquent women, predated the modern women’s movement. The radical women who built the women’s movement simply hadn’t noticed their own participation in the oppression of Black women in just the same way as the New Left men had not noticed their participation in the exploitation of women, until the concept of “sexism” was posited, as a direct result of the popularisation of the notion of “racism.” The raising of the objection by black women pre-supposed a group of people with a voice, and this voice pre-dated the women’s movement; this was the voice of the American Negro.

So we have here two processes of exclusion or abjection, a racist and a sexist act of subordination. The objection made to the feminist movement by women of color was essentially the objection of a pre-existing movement of African Americans.

The formation of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement were positive acts, acts of formation, that required bringing people together, getting organised and formulating a vision. The shared exclusion was a basis for that subject formation, but only “in-itself,” and the formation of subjectivity actually required the negation of that shared attribute as inessential, as a claim for recognition as human beings, not slaves.

Butler welcomes the prospect of the further fragmentation of radical subjectivity:

‘To deconstruct the subject of feminism is not, then, to censure its usage, but, on the contrary, to release the term into a future of multiple significations, to emancipate it from the maternal or racialist ontologies to which it has been restricted, and to give it play as a site where unanticipated meanings might come to bear.’

Any collectivity of sameness is open to unanticipated difference and contradiction. But the mere existence of unacknowledged difference does not constitute an injustice, nor its invisibility an “erasure.” Injustice presupposes some claim by some subject, and some principled basis for the recognition of an injustice, which can substantiate a claim. There can be no “etc.”